Chronic stress produces deficits in cognition accompanied by alterations in neural chemistry and morphology. Medial prefrontal cortex is a target for glucocorticoids involved in the stress response. We have previously demonstrated that 3 weeks of daily corticosterone injections result in dendritic reorganization in pyramidal neurons in layer II-III of medial prefrontal cortex. To determine if similar morphological changes occur in response to chronic stress, we assessed the effects of daily restraint stress on dendritic morphology in medial prefrontal cortex. Male rats were exposed to either 3 h of restraint stress daily for 3 weeks or left unhandled except for weighing during this period. On the last day of restraint, animals were overdosed and brains were stained using a Golgi-Cox procedure. Pyramidal neurons in lamina II-III of medial prefrontal cortex were drawn in three dimensions, and the morphology of apical and basilar arbors was quantified. Sholl analyses demonstrated a significant alteration of apical dendrites in stressed animals: overall, the number and length of apical dendritic branches was reduced by 18 and 32%, respectively. The reduction in apical dendritic arbor was restricted to distal and higher-order branches, and may reflect atrophy of terminal branches: terminal branch number and length were reduced by 19 and 35%. On the other hand, basilar dendrites were not affected. This pattern of dendritic reorganization is similar to that seen after daily corticosterone injections. This reorganization likely reflects functional changes in prefrontal cortex and may contribute to stress-induced changes in cognition.
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